Grace And Peace And Welcome

A few years back my friends started a podcast (Crackers & Grape Juice) and it quickly took off faster than they imagined. So much so, they needed help keeping up with interviews and episodes.

I offered my support, if it would be helpful, and before I knew it I was staring at GarageBand with a handful of audio files.

Editing that first episode wasn’t too difficult (other than removing an ungodly number of “ummms” cough cough Jason Micheli). But then I realized that it would need an introduction.

I had consumed enough episodes of This American Life at that point to know the intro need to be catchy and brief, while also pointing the listener to the theme therein plus the greater scope of the podcast.

But I just stared at GarageBand hoping for a little manna from heaven.

A week passed and I was no closer to having an introduction when the episode was needed in the feed and I decided to just go with what I say on Sunday mornings for worship: “Grace and peace and welcome”

Though this time I added “… to Crackers & Grape Juice, where we talk about faith without using stained glass language.”

Fast-forward a few years, a few new podcasts (Strangely Warmed, (Her)Men*You*Tics, You Are Not Accepted), and over 750,000 downloads (!), and we now have the intro on a tee-shirt!

Thanks to the incredible design (and modeling) work of Tommie Marshell, you can pick up a shirt here: Swag

The proceeds help the podcast keep going so that we, as always, can bring you more theological content without stained glass language.

Thanks for the support.

Have Mercy On Us, O Lord

Following Jesus, being disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War; it is the way. And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is often far too easy to talk about the virtues of a commitment to pacifism from the comfort of the ivory tower that is the United States of America. That is, until we remember that today is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

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Early in the morning on August 6th, 1945 the airfield was still remarkably dark so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were enough people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out of the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. However, he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated. 

70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing.

But then Emperor Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why.

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

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But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma. 

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to North Korea to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

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War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies. 

Today is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and it feels as if we haven’t learned our lesson.

That is, for Christians, violence only ever begets more violence.

Nuclear War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. Nuclear War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. Nuclear War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. Nuclear War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. Nuclear War is our sinfulness manifest in atomic weapons. Nuclear War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil.

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

Quarantunes

“Sing lustily and with good courage.” John Wesley wrote those words in the Hymnbook for Methodists in 1761. We at Crackers and Grape Juice take those words seriously!

Therefore we decided to bring you some of our current “Quarantunes” for our latest podcast. They are the songs that have inspired, enlightened, and even enraged us as of recent. Here’s the playlist:

1. Thoughts And Prayers – Drive-By Truckers (Jason Micheli)
2. Sea of Love – Langhorne Slim & Jill Andrews (Teer Hardy)
3. What If I Never Get Over You – Lady A (Johanna Hartelius)
4. Cowboy Take Me Away – The Chicks (Tommie Marshell)
5. Moon River – Jacob Collier (David King)
6. Beautiful Strangers – Kevin Morby (Taylor Mertins)

If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Quarantunes

God Will Not Be Distracted

On Christmas Eve 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to Eberhard and Renate Bethge (Renate was Bonhoffer’s niece and Eberhard was Bonhoeffer’s student at the underground seminary in Finkenwalde) about their imminent separation on account of the Second World War. That the letter was written while Bonhoeffer was incarcerated for “crimes against the state” and it was smuggled out by sympathetic guards makes it all the more poignant. 

I’ve come back to the letter on a number of occasions throughout my ministry, but it is hitting quite hard right now during a time when so many of us are separated from one another because of the pandemic. I yearn for the time that I can gather with the church on Sunday mornings for corporate worship, for backyard barbecues with neighbors, and chance interactions with strangers at the grocery store. But until such a time, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on separation are a gift:

“First, nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.

Secondly, the dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves. We must take care not to wallow in our memories or hands ourselves over to them, just as we do not gaze all the time at a valuable present, but only at special times, and apart from these keep it simply as a hidden treasure that is ours for certain. In this way the past gives us lasting joy and strength.

Thirdly, times of separation are not a total loss or unprofitable for our companionship, or at any rate they need not be so. In spite of all the difficulties that they bring, they can be the means of strengthening fellowship quite remarkably.

Fourthly, I’ve learnt here (prison) especially that the facts can always be mastered, and that difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf: With sorrow and with grief… God will not be distracted.” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters & Papers From Prison [New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972], 176-177.)

The Bewildering Word

Romans 5.8

But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.

I, along with a few other pastors, have been leading a weekly online Bible study throughout the Pandemic. Each Wednesday afternoon we’ve gone through a particular set of verses and made the whole thing available to our respective congregations while we cannot gather together in-person.

I’ve loved every minute of it.

Talking about scripture with others has always been something I’ve enjoyed (hence being the whole pastor thing) but getting to talk about scripture with other pastors is a strangely rare occurrence. For, more often than not, clergy are tasked with talking about scripture to their church communities rather than with those who similarly feel called to do so.

Every week I’ve learned something from the Bible that I didn’t know before. This has been partly due to the fact that the pastors participating represent different denominations and therefore theological trainings and experiences. And I know that I am a better pastor for it.

Yesterday, we were talking about Matthew 9-10 and Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples to go out to proclaim the Good News. And, in the midst of our conversation, we got a little bogged down in our reflections on this particular verse: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

We, the pastors, took turns reflecting theologically about the time and space aspect of the proclamation, the event that is Jesus Christ, and how we might come to grips with the transformation wrought in the person we call the Lord.

And, here’s what I offered: “Being a Christian is often nothing more than hearing God say, ‘I will not abandon you,’ over and over again until you realize it’s true.”

The kingdom of heaven who is the person of Jesus Christ has come near to dwell among us, regardless and in spite of our earnings and deservings. While we were sinners Christ died for us – not before nor after. Right smack dab in the middle of our biggest mistake, Jesus said, “Okay, I’m willing to die for that.”

That’s a really bewildering word. Sometimes we only need to hear it once and it changes everything forever. But for others, it takes a lifetime of hearing it Sunday after Sunday before we realize its true.

I have friends who, after being married for a little while, decided to adopt a child. They went through all the proper channels and eventually traveled to Guatemala where they met G who was 15 months old. They returned home with him and their lives were properly upended with all the responsibilities that come with parenting. 

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, my friends received a phone call from the lawyer who helped them find their son. The lawyer shared that there was a family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named A, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer wanted to know if my friend were interested in adopting another son.

However, the lawyer explained, this 5 year old was allegedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to be rid of him after all, and he didn’t speak any English.

My friends said yes.

Those two boys are now about to enter high school and make plans for life after high school, respectively. They are some of the most incredible young men I’ve ever had the privilege to call friends, and my life is better for them being in it.

But I know it wasn’t easy for my friends, their parents.

In the beginning, right after A arrived, they had to sleep with him in his bed for months, all in the hopes that he would understand that they wouldn’t abandon him. Night after night they would whisper in his ear “We’re not leaving,” and “We love you,” and “This is your home.” They believed in what they were do so that we would one day realize that no matter what he did, no matter har far he fell, there was nothing he could ever do that would separate their love for him. 

It took a very long time, but for a five year old Guatemalan boy who had been passed from family to family, it was the only way for him to understand what their love, what love at all, looked like.

And that’s exactly what God’s love looks like for us.

It’s a reckless and confounding divine desire to remain steadfast even when we won’t. 

It’s the forgiveness offered before an action is committed. 

It is what we in the church call the Gospel.

Just like my friends cradling their son in their arms night after night, God will never let us go. And that is Good News.

Lies We Wrap In Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to pray in the midst of a time like this. A time when all you have to do is get on Twitter or television and you’re bombarded with images and videos from our local community and across the nation of people in anguish and fear, and the ways others are responding to it.

This morning, I arrived at church and went to the sanctuary to pray as I always do and I was at a loss for what to share with the Lord. I felt like I had no words to offer in regard to everything being experienced.

From protestors being hit by police cars, to the President tear-gassing a church so that he could have a photo opportunity with a Bible in his hands, to the countless images of violence being perpetrated against those who are demonstrating peacefully.

It’s difficult to know how to put into words how I’m feeling, how to communicate it to God, and how we should (perhaps) all be feeling about this. And I was reminded this morning, particularly as a pastor who feels like I always have to be coming up with new, fresh, and insightful things to say, that I can rely on the words of others.

And, in particular, I can rely on the prayers of others.

Karl Barth once said, “To clasp hands together in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

That’s how I try to think of prayer whenever I pray whether it’s individually or corporately.

Therefore, I would like to share a prayer from someone else, a prayer that has meant a lot to me, and feels even more important considering the condition of our current condition:

Lies We Wrap in Love – Stanley Hauerwas

Lord, we often ask you to invade our lives,

To plumb the secrets of our hearts unknown even to ourselves.

But in fact we do not desire that.

What we really want to scream,

If only to ourselves, 

Is “Do not reveal to us who we are!”

We think we are better people if you leave us to our illusions.

Yes, we know another word for a life of illusion is hell. 

But we are surrounded by many caught up in such a hell – 

People too deficient of soul even to be capable of lying, 

But only of self-deceit.

Dear God, we ask for your mercy on all those so caught,

Particularly if we are among them.

The loneliness of such a life is terrifying.

Remind us, compel us to be truthful, painful as that is.

For without the truth, without you, we die.

Save us from the pleasantness which too often is but a name for ambition.

Save us from the temptation to say to another what we think he/she wants to hear

Rather than what we both need to hear.

The regimen of living your truth is hard,

But help us remember that any love but truthful love is cursed.

The lie wrapped in love is just another word for violence.

For God’s sake, for the world’s sake, give us the courage to speak truthfully,

So that we might be at peace with one another and with you. Amen. 

So, whether it’s with your own prayers, or the prayers of those who came before, I pray that today you find a way to clasp your hands in prayer such that is a beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world. 

On Personal Pandemic Improvements

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but there has been no shortage of people claiming this is the perfect time to fashion ourselves into the the best versions we can muster. From learning how to bake sourdough bread, to losing those ten extra pounds we put on at Thanksgiving, to learning a new language – now is the moment to seize the day! 

And yet, as Christians, we know better than most that telling someone to change rarely, if ever, works. 

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One of my favorite theological writers, Robert Farrar Capon, puts it like this:

I do not seriously expect that you would never be angry just because I lectured you about your temper. We have far less power than we think to revolutionize our behavior. The real saints among us are not, as we commonly suppose, those who have conquered their vices, but those who have not allowed vice to blunt their critical appreciation of virtue. They may go on sinning, but they don’t stop confessing. Therefore, you do not need me to urge a modest reform upon you: all reforms, as you know perfectly well, turn out automatically to be more modest than anything else. What you need is a call to immodest repentance, so that when you sin, you will at least sin boldly, honoring the law with an honest breach rather than fiddling with it until it isn’t a law.” RFC, Party Spirit

Rather than becoming the best version of ourselves, now is the time to rest in the knowledge that God loves us as we are. Which, to be clear, is astounding! That’s the best news we can ever offer anyone because it sets us free from the expectations of the world and the expectations we place on ourselves. The only thing we need to do is trust. Which, in the end, isn’t so hard after all.

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Faith In The Time of COVID

The church has gone digital.

Frankly, it started a long time ago.

However, the recent wave of the COVID19 pandemic has forced churches across the world to adapt to the situation whether they wanted to or not.

When I first felt a call to ministry as a teenager in the early aughts, I told my pastor and he responded by telling me I would be preaching at the end of the month. He then gave me a few instructions (here’s the text, write 2,000 words, practice in front of a mirror, etc.) and the rest is history. One of the unanticipated benefits of being launched into ministry the way I was means that every sermon I’ve ever preached can be read online.

Literally through this blog.

As the years progressed I started making digital audio recordings of said sermons and now it’s not just a matter of reading the sermons online, but anyone anywhere can listen to them as well.

Therefore, to add the videocamera a few weeks ago to the typical Sunday morning experience wasn’t too much of a stretch.

It would seem, then, that going forward every sermon can be read, listened to, or watched online.

But, is it still church?

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A good friend of mine, Alan Combs, recently started a new podcast called “Shelter In Place.” The idea behind the podcast is to reach out to a variety of people to discover how they are finding comfort in an inherently uncomfortable situation. I love the premise of it all and was thrilled to be invited on for a recent episode.

In it Alan, his friend Joey, and I talked about the challenges of doing ministry in the midst of the pandemic from live-streaming on Sunday mornings, to staying connected with church folk, to what kind of music we’ve been listening to.

If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the Shelter In Place podcast, you can do so here: Faith In The Time Of COVID

 

Think Small or: Don’t Think At All

1 Peter 1.18-21

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.

With each passing day of this pandemic, I’ve come across countless posts and articles all about how to make the most of the time we now have on our hands. Which, of course, doesn’t even address the many who still have to work in the midst of all this and those who are putting their lives on the line so that others can have the aforementioned extra time on their hands. Nevertheless, I know people who are using this time to lose those ten pounds they’ve been meaning to get rid of, or become amateur sourdough bakers, or become professional live-streaming worship pastors.

Meanwhile, the talking heads on television are pitting the different political operatives against one another while blaming them for putting us in the mess in the first place.

Similarly, certain individuals are choosing to directly ignore the calls for social-distancing because they believe it is infringing on their freedoms.

And finally, special interest groups are pressuring elected leaders to “reopen” their respective jurisdictions for fear of what the long-term effects will be for the economy.

All of this can fall into the category of “thinking big.” Rather than addressing the small and local concerns that are, somewhat, within our control, we pass the buck along to someone else in hopes that they can bring about the change that requires the least from us. Or, a little closer to home, we’re feeling pressured to make the most of this pandemic by reimagining ourselves and fixing all the things we’ve let go for too long. 

The problem with “thinking big” is that it almost never works. 

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Back in 1972, in the midst of the rise of feminism, racial reconciliation, and environmentalism, Wendell Berry had this to say on “thinking big”:

“For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. A better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little. That implies the necessary change of thinking and feeling, and suggests the necessary work. Thinking Big has led to the two biggest and cheapest political dodges of our time: plan-making and law-making. The lotus-eaters of this era are in Washington, D.C., Thinking Big. Somebody perceives a problem, and somebody in the government comes up with a plan or a law. The result, mostly, has been the persistence of the problem, and the enrichment of the government. But the discipline of thought is not generalization; it is detail, and it is personal behavior. While the government is “studying” and funding and organizing its Big Thought, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his/her own, is already solving the problem. A person who is trying to live as neighbor to their neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of peace and humanity, and let there be no mistake about it – they are doing that work.” – Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony 1972

The challenges, and problems, that feminism/racial reconciliation/environmentalism aimed to erase are still very much a part of the fabric of our reality. It’s been nearly fifty years since Wendell Berry wrote those words and women are still paid less than men, racism is very much alive, and the environment has passed the point of no return. (However, strangely enough, certain cities across the globe are seeing the skylines without smog for the first time in decades because everyone has been forced to stay inside).

The critique from 1972 is just as relevant today as it was then. The more we assume, or hope, that necessary changes will be accomplished by other people further up the ladder, the longer we will be disappointed. The same holds true with our own desires for self-improvement. If we want to use this time to become master bakers, or perfect painters, or marathon runners, that’s fine, but there’s a better than good chance we’re just going to disappoint ourselves.

Wendell Berry’s alternative, and an alternative from the gospel is to think little. Instead of waiting for the world to change, we can make small changes in our own lives. We can absolutely start and try new things, but keeping our goals in check will help us in these challenging times rather than shaming us into not accomplishing what we wanted.

In 1 Peter there’s this great line about how, through Jesus, we’ve come to trust in God. I love that because it’s not about trusting in ourselves or in other people. For, more often than not, we are masters of disappointment. But God? God remains steadfast no matter the circumstances; Jesus’ is still raised from the dead whether we can worship together in church, or we can run a marathon, or we can bake the perfect loaf of bread.

This is a strange time we find ourselves in. We can do things now we’ve never done before. But it’s also a pandemic. It’s okay if we don’t do anything at all. We can watch Netflix until our eyes hurt. We can go all the way to the end of the bag of Cheetos. We can wear pajamas all day long. The gospel has set us free from the expectations we place on ourselves and the expectations the world has placed on us.

The only thing we need to do is trust. Which, in the end, isn’t much at all. Because in the end, the rest is up to God. 

Don’t Use God As An Explanation

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“If we ask the elderly to commit suicide in order to shore up the economy for their grandchildren, then their grandchildren won’t have lives worth living.”

That’s what Stanley Hauerwas said to Jason Micheli and myself yesterday over the phone. We had a brief conversation about what it means to be the church in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and how to make sense of it theologically. Additionally, we addressed the lack of analogies for the current situation, what it means to be really connected, and the pulpit of America. If you would like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here: Don’t Use God As An Explanation